CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) - Few question the need to move imprisoned psychiatric patients out of a dilapidated state hospital building, but there are concerns about retrofitting a juvenile detention center for adults who have committed some of the worst crimes in recent history.
A $7 million project is changing the floor plan of the R.I. Training School's Roosevelt Benton Center, sectoring off three confined areas for high, medium and low-risk patients now held in the 82-year-old Pinell Building.
Some 60 juveniles were moved to a unit in the main Training School building last summer after vandalism and violence in the Benton Center. The facility held mostly juveniles awaiting trial, and it was just nine years old when it was left empty.
Carolyn Medeiros, executive director of The Alliance for Safe Communities, is leery of what is known as the forensic population.
"They're criminally insane. They're dangerous. They've committed some of the most heinous, barbaric crimes," Medeiros said. "They're going to test boundaries, the boundaries of the structure, the boundaries of the staff."
Records indicate Michael Woodmansee - convicted in 1983 of killing a 5-year-old - committed himself to the state hospital in 2011.
Christian Lepore, found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 2016 West Greenwich beating death of 62-year-old John O’Neil, is held there as well.
"There are several other horrid cases in there," Medeiros added.
According to the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH), privacy laws restrict the agency from releasing the psychiatric patients' names.
That also concerns Medeiros, who wonders what would happen if someone escaped.
But a BHDDH spokesperson said names can be released if the patient or community are in danger.
The Benton Center will be "20 times better" than Pinell, according to Carole Cornelison, the director of the state Division of Capital Asset Management & Maintenance, the agency managing the project.
"This is going to give just a much higher level of security both for the patients as well as the staff," Cornelison said.
Construction is scheduled to be completed in June. Pinell is slated for demolition after it's emptied, according to Cornelison.
The yet-to-be-scheduled transfer of the forensic patients might concern Medeiros most of all.
"[These prisoners] are more savvy than most," she said. "They're violent. I just hope policies are in place that will keep us safe."